Monday, October 5, 2009

What I'm Watching...Black Coffee Part 1

Black Coffee: A Glimpse into the Dark Side of the Brew
A Documentary on the unique and volatile history of coffee
Directed by: Irene Angelico, 2005
(Canadian film)

Part 1 of 2

It is interesting that I am completing this post at the same time that Starbucks is sampling their new single-serving instant coffee drink,"Via". Irene Angelico's film is a fantastic documentary about "the irresistible bean"...Coffee. Starbucks is one of the companies featured in the 2005 film, and their stance at the time supports fair trade practices, quality beans and bringing gourmet coffee to the masses. Having just listened to the corporate vision of Starbucks on screen, I was confused when I read about their instant brew, "Via".

Just four years ago in this film, Starbucks, or the "McDonald's of coffee" was waxing socially-conscious and promoting a push toward quality, fair trade coffee prepared the Italian way. Now they are blasting back in their corporate time capsules to the 1950s when post-war instant coffee was the latest futuristic craze; magical crystals that transformed home kitchens across America. The only explanation I can think of is that (gasp) Starbucks is not really focused on quality, they are more focused on a quick profit. On their website they even tell you how Via can change your life! Starbucks says Via is made from the highest quality Arabica beans, and I don't doubt that, but what they have done to the beans by making them instant I am sure has compromised the taste of the coffee. They say they are microgrinding it to preserve oils and flavours, but by making an instant coffee in the first place, they are contradicting their past statements.

To echo many of the views in this film, I believe we need to start savouring coffee just like we do with wine! Treat it like the romantic beverage that it is. From the origins of coffee and its traditional ceremony in Ethiopia to the cafes in Seattle and Vancouver, this documentary covers it all. Having worked at cafes and been trained on the origins and brewing methods, I thought I knew a good deal about coffee. Was I ever wrong. This film humbled and educated me beyond my expectations. Like wine, the history and culture of coffee is absolutely tied to human history, commerce, tradition and food. I am sure at this point, almost everyone has heard the term "fair trade" or "fairly traded", or maybe you've bought "shade grown" coffee. I used to work in an organic gourmet food store and we sold shade grown coffee, but I didn't even know what that meant. It is easy to hear about these issues and not really do anything about them, or just think, oh, yeah, I support that. But are we supporting it with our dollars?

Throughout the film, coffee enthusiasts and authorities share their knowledge of the subject. Most impressive and engaging was Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds. He provides an inside view of the history and sociology of coffee and delivers this information in a down to earth, provocative way. One of his first comments is: "Coffee is the 2nd most valuable legally traded commodity on the face of the earth....after oil."

"2 dollars for a cup of coffee. 1 cent goes to the coffee grower." The President of the International Organization of Coffee uttered these words on screen, and they send a powerful message. This film doesn't shy away from showing the dark side of the coffee industry. While some of us sip our $4 lattes, workers on coffee plantations are making $18 per day at the most harvesting the coffee berries that become our brew. Supporting fair trade or fairly-traded coffee is crucial to help support these workers. Today, "many of the people who produce coffee are only marginally better off than their enslaved ancestors" as told by the narrator of the film.

Black Coffee was very well done and because it is separated into 3 episodes, it is easy to fit into your viewing schedule for the week. Not only educational, it is visually stunning in parts and narrated beautifully.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Starbucks and their instant coffee-- will their customers embrace it because of its "fast food" availability? Or will die-hard customers get confused and abandon Starbucks altogether for the independent barista around the corner? What do you think?

This film had so much interesting content that I decided to review it in 2 parts. All photos courtesy of Flickr (Cafemama,lemonysarah,rogiro)

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